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Noah and the Bulls quiet the 76ers

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Mar 1

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They were laughing at Joakim Noah in Philadelphia last year, laughing as sports fans do in Philadelphia over someone else’s hardship. For Noah, it was when he still hoped, though even his belief was slipping away after Derrick Rose’s catastrophic injury in Game 1 of the playoffs. But now it was over as Noah was writhing with a severely sprained ankle it would take months to rehabilitate, and the Philly fans hooted and cheered.

They’re not cheering or laughing anymore.

“I really felt before the playoffs started that we were in position to win the championship,” Noah said late Thursday in the Bulls locker room after the Bulls’ 93-82 victory to sweep the season series from the staggering 76ers. “Derrick went down and it was very hard on the team. And then getting injured and the way the fans reacted, that was probably one of my biggest motivations.”

Joakim Noah

Both in working to recover, the face of Philadelphia, as ugly as that might be with a cheese steak and a soft pretzel in its mouth, driving Noah as much as the chance to deliver some repayment to the team.

Noah did that in a truly historic way Thursday with one of the greatest statistical performances in NBA history with 23 points, 21 rebounds and 11 blocks.

“Never seen anything like that,” said Carlos Boozer, who was a major support with 21 points and 12 rebounds. “That was legendary stuff. I’ve never seen a center do that, no teammate of mine. And we needed every one of them. Every rebound, every basket, every free throw, every block, every assist. He was amazing.”

It was Noah’s third triple-double of his career. But more than that Noah not only tied Artis Gilmore’s team record in a regulation game for blocks, but it was the first triple-double in team history with at least 20 in two categories since Guy Rodgers in 1966 and Noah became one of six players in NBA history along with Hakeem Olajuwon, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Shawn Bradley, Shaquille O’Neal and Elvin Hayes to have a triple-double with at least 20/20/10 blocks.

Noah now is in the top 10 in the league in blocks and rebounds and leads all centers in assists and is considered the front runner for Defensive Player of the Year award with the Bulls third in lowest opponent shooting percentage, one of the primary defensive indicator. It’s been the continuation of a spectacular breakout season for Noah as he made the All-Star team, already has put up a game of 30 points and 23 rebounds while averaging career highs in scoring, rebounding, steals, assists and blocks.

And with eight losses in their last 12 games, the Bulls desperately needed this sort of inspiring and motivational effort from Noah with Taj Gibson still out, Rose of course and Richard Hamilton not playing with back spasms. Plus, late in Thursday’s national TNT game, Luol Deng took a slashing elbow to the mouth, loosening several lower teeth and necessitating at least a long Friday in the dental chair.

The Bulls, now 33-25, were getting drilled as well the past month and perhaps March will bring some relief as well.

“That was spectacular,” raved coach Tom Thibodeau. “That was such a big effort game from him. His will from the start of the game until the end was just incredible. We had a lot of guys get on board with him. I thought Lu’s rebounding (12 points and eight rebounds) and Carlos’ rebounding was critical, also. Jo is an energy/effort player. When he plays like that, when you get an effort like that that, it ignites and inspires your team. It makes other guys do the same. They fought, they made their run (getting within 75-71 with 7:07 left), and we kept battling and made some big plays. Jo made big time plays when the game as was on was on the line, whether it was a a blocked shot, rebound in traffic, tipin whatever was necessary for us to have success, he was doing it. With his block shots, rebounding, tip in, he did whatever was necessary. Kirk (Hinrich with 15 points and six assists) and Nate (Robinson with a crucial fourth quarter three) played very well. Everyone stepped up and played well.

“(But) what (Noah) did tonight was because he was everywhere,” said Thibodeau. “Not only the blocked shots. He did a lot of switching, guarding everyone, big time multiple efforts, sometimes three, four, five efforts on the same play.”

And that was with 45 minutes on the court overwhelming Spencer Hawes, whom the Bulls were strongly considering in the 2007 draft when they selected Noah, mostly defending the more athletic Thaddeus Young in the 76ers’ smaller lineups while swinging over to block nearly a half dozen Hawes’ efforts.

“Noah was spectacular,” raved 76ers coach Doug Collins. “He was the difference in the game. Between Noah and Boozer they had 44 points and 33 rebounds and Noah’s 11 blocks and those guys were 18 for 21 from the foul line. Noah is so lively and he is so active and he is on the move all the time. If you don’t get your body on him he is going to be nightmarish around the rim. He has a great motor. He plays every play. He doesn’t ever take a play off, which is a tremendous quality to have. Even if he is out on the (perimeter guarding), he’s going to the. He has the speed and quickness to get back so it’s not like he compromises the defense. He is also a tremendous pick and roll defender. This guy is a tremendous player. He’s worked on his body; he’s bigger, he’s stronger. And make no bones about it, he wants to beat us. After what happened last year in the playoffs when he rolled his ankle, it was a tough ending for him. When he sees us, he has been very, very good all season long.”

Noah didn’t have to say much, though the enthusiastic United Center crowd enjoyed Noah’s four fourth quarter blocks with chants of “Noah, Noah.” And after an unusually long post game treatment session as he still works on his plantar fasciitis, Noah pulled on his plaid stocking cap which pretty much goes with nothing and didn’t much want to talk about individual accomplishments, which is another element that makes him a special player.

He admitted he knew he was closing in on the triple-double with blocks since he said Boozer was telling him in the huddles, though as Boozer shouts out foul calls to help officials and urges balls into the basket all game long along with Nate Robinson’s constant chatter and blather it’s surprising Noah was listening that much. But Noah was focused, especially on those Philadelphia uniforms that are so burned in his memory and what could have been. A first round playoff exit makes a team a memory pretty fast.

The way the Bulls had so much success against Miami last season with their physical play, with their huge edge in size and toughness with Omer Asik and the continuity of their reserve group, the Bulls were quietly confident that it was their year. They’ve hardly given up, but they know individually that window closed and they must look for the next open door to ultimate success. No one admits it’s not possible because as we know things change and anything can happen, like against the 76ers last April. But with the remaining uncertainty about Rose’s return and the spate of injuries, the same certainty doesn’t exist. So it is games and times like Thursday’s both Noah and his teammates need to keep the dreams alive. Who knows. If they can play like this…

“I wanted to get it (triple-double), but I wanted to win more,” said Noah “It was a good win for us. Hopefully we can build on it. We’ve got some tough opponents coming up, teams we possibly can face in the playoffs. We needed it bad and now we’ve got to keep it going. It’s on us to find a way to get it done. We played better than we have played, with pretty good energy. We’ve just got to build on it and believe we can beat anybody.

“I played my game,” shrugged Noah. “I’m not somebody who’s going to score in the post. “I just went where the ball bounced.”

His best game ever? Noah was asked.

“I don’t know,” he said quietly after a pause. “We had to find a way. We just got to keep getting better. We have not been playing at a very high level. It sucks to lose; it feels good when you win. If we play with the right mindset and play for one another and to out capabilities we (still) can make some noise (in the playoffs). It’s going to take work. There’s going to be a lot of adversity. We’ve got to fight and keep improving because we’re not playing our best basketball right now.”

It still wasn’t all that great Thursday against a 76ers team in free fall, now 22-34 and pretty much out of the playoff race with their seventh straight loss. Collins was under fire in Philadelphia after post game comments following a home loss Tuesday to Orlando, though the former Bulls coach said he was merely doing what he always did in trying to motivate his team. Collins even joked he was trending on Twitter, though he’s not much of a user.

Collins is one of the more popular coaches with the media, accessible and entertaining in the vein of Boston’s Doc Rivers.

“Derrick, I thought for sure he was going to play tonight,” Collins laughed about speculation many had, especially with TNT sticking with two slumping teams for their highlight Thursday game. “Got hurt against Philadelphia, come back against Philadelphia. Game on TNT. I could just see him running out (making) the Adidas commercial tonight.”

But Collins remains close with managing partner Jerry Reinsdorf and vice president John Paxson and said, “The Chicago Bulls have a tremendous investment in Derrick Rose. You want to make sure that this young guy is going to be ready to go. We take a guy like Adrian Peterson and we say, ‘This guy rehabbed and was back and was playing football and you kind of expect everybody to have the same timetable.’ Knees are different. Every player is different. Derrick is an explosive player. He plays in the lane. He’s landing in a lot of bodies, in a lot of congestion. More important, he’s going to have to be very confident when he plays, about being able to explode off that leg, being able to come down in a crowd and do the things he has to do. Jerry Reinsdorf and the Bulls organization are not short-sighted people. They view the big picture. I think they feel they have a franchise that has a chance to be good for a long, long time. And Derrick Rose is the guy who is going to make that special.”

Kirk HinrichNo, he doesn’t know, either, though a little bit of help may be on the way as the Bulls are one of the teams trying to lure free agent forward Lou Amundson to sign. He’s represented by Chicago agent Mark Bartelstein, with whom the Bulls deal often. Amundson got his release from Minnesota earlier this season and is a seven-year pro out of UNLV who is one of those fan favorite hustlers, especially when he was with the Suns, one of his six teams. He’s not highly skilled, but can step in and run the floor and rebound.

Without Rose, these are all tough now for the Bulls as the injuries have mounted and the minutes as well. Noah went 45, Deng just under 42 and Hinrich about 40.

“I’m more from the Nolan Ryan school,” said Thibodeau about the iron armed pitcher. “If you have young guys and they can handle the minutes, you play them. If a guy is in his mid-30′s and you are trying to prolong things you have to be more cautious and you monitor those things. But this is not anything new. This has gone on in the NBA for a long time. You have a guy that is in his prime, a primary player, then he is going to play. That’s the way it is. I sat on that other bench when Jordan and Pippen and Rodman never came out. I sat on that bench playing against San Antonio when Tim Duncan never came out. All this stuff about minutes. I understand that. I understand if a guy is in his 30s you manage his minutes. A guy is young you can handle it. Heck, Jordan was playing high 30s until he was 40 years old. Wilt played a few minutes every night.”

In other words, get your rest.

That lack of energy Thibodeau said he’d been seeing of late was dissipating some as the Bulls got Boozer going to start with 10 first quarter points and led 23-22 as Evan Turner matched that with a bit of panache as he enjoys playing back home where Chicago fans boo him from critical comments before last season’s playoff series. He finished with just 12 while Jrue Holiday led the 76ers with 22 and Hawes had 20.

But the Bulls showed some hopeful signs as well with Boozer hustling after a Deng miss to get a layup and then the Bulls taking a 45-39 halftime lead with a few highlight plays, a Jimmy Butler poster dunk over Thaddeus Young and Marco Belinelli with a Magic Johnson type look away fake for a driving score as he subbed for Hamilton and had six points.

“I try to be ready,” said Belinelli. “I did not play a good game, did not score a lot, missed some easy three point shots. I tried to take my shot, be aggressive, find my guys and get them shots. It was important to win this game for the spirit of the team.”

Though Belinelli had to add about Noah: “Unbelievable. I think I’ve never seen something like that. He’s the man on defense, helps everybody. Tonight, just amazing, did everything.”

Though the Bulls led at halftime, they were shooting 38.3 percent (which is about where they’d finish). The 76ers were shooting 45 percent, which the Bulls got down to 38.8 percent by the end of the game.

“To me the season is a grind and we gotta keep grinding,” said Thibodeau. “Like most teams, we are down a player here, down a player there. We have to keep fighting a good fight. These games tend to get pretty close, a play here, a play there change the outcome of the game. When preparing you want to put as many things in your favor as you possibly can, and you have to go out there and get the job done.”

The Bulls did that in a second half as they held the 76ers to 33 percent shooting with their most aggressive defense in several weeks and a monster half by Noah with 13 points, 13 rebounds and six blocks while Hinrich had all his 15 points after halftime.

Noah’s emotion began to spill over early in the third quarter with a three point play in which he was pumping his fist and then calling for a clearout so he could drive as he was humiliating Hawes, throwing him out of the way for rebounds like he was a rich kid from Seattle. Oh, right, he was.

The Bulls seemed to have control ahead 64-48 after a Hinrich three from Belinelli and Noah with a follow on a Hinrich miss late in the third. But the 76ers got their three ball working, the Bulls still not as settled running opponents off the line as they were a few weeks ago. But the roster has been shrinking. The 76ers got within 68-62 after three before Robinson hit the first of two big threes in the fourth quarter and Noah put back a Robinson air ball for a basket, though the scorekeepers had it a pass. Hey, it was Nate. We know he was shooting.

Noah was actually Duncan-like the way he’s come along and can rebound now with his arms up and grabbing the ball. That’s what has made Duncan so effective over the years while so many big men gather themselves before jumping as Noah often did. But Noah kept going for everything above the 76ers defense. Still, the 76ers made one more run, getting within 75-71 when Noah made the plays that symbolized and defined the game.

With the Bulls lead cut to four with a long way to go, Robinson hit a pullup and Noah then made what I thought was the play of the game. Jeremy Pargo had beaten the defense and was going in for a layup when Noah blocked the shot. Before it could go out of bounds, Noah corralled it with one hand and shoveled it to a running Robinson. Robinson then pulled up for the three to make it 80-71 with Noah trailing and exulting as the ball went through. None of that blocking shots in this era with the ball flying into the stands and the player bowing. Like Bill Russell: Block it, save it and run.

That sent the 76ers into a timeout.

The 76ers came out with Thaddeus Young driving the lane. Noah stepped up to thwart Young, who threw to a cutting Hawes along the baseline. Noah recovered and blocked Hawes’ layup attempt, then going onto the floor to grab the ball for his 10th block and the triple double.

Deng missed a three and going the other way Turner drove and Noah blocked that shot, too. Then a rolling Noah took a sharp bounce pass form Butler for a reverse layup and three-point play, Noah screaming in delight and pumping his fists to give the Bulls an 83-71 lead with under five minutes left and the fans chanting his name.

Noah effectively closed it with a pair of free throws with 2:54 left to maintain a 10-point lead before the Bulls got a bit of a scare late when Deng went down with a few seconds left with an elbow to the mouth after a Hawes drive.

“They’re loose,” Deng said of his bottom teeth through a mostly closed mouth. “Kind of out of position. I got a really bad headache. No concussion. Just a bad headache, a bad hit. I’ll probably be in more pain in the morning.”

But Deng tried a smile, and it’s a good thing at least he had a guard on his upper teeth with that terrific smile.

“I wanted to get a block,” Deng joked, “Jo had so many blocks. I needed a block. Too.”

Everyone wants to be like Jo. It couldn’t hurt.

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